In the toughest jobs, a high individual burnout rate and a high staff turnover rate are parallel negative trend lines. (Ask a teacher, public safety worker, etc.) But in few lines of work is burnout — physical, psychological and emotional — more likely than in child welfare case work.
When Bobby G. Cagle took the helm of the state Division of Family and Children Services in 2014, Georgia’s situation was even worse than most. DFCS had lost 60 percent of its state funding in the Great Recession and that money had still not been fully restored. He stepped into the job in the midst of a tragic scandal involving a 5-year-old child who died of abuse despite extensive DFCS records on her circumstances. He inherited an annual staff turnover rate of about 39 percent. There was little if any more continuity in the leadership of the division, which had gone through 10 directors in 20 years.
During a visit to Columbus in late May, Cagle said DFCS had developed a “bunker mentality” when Gov. Nathan Deal asked him to head the agency: “They were doing hard work, they were underpaid and they were understaffed.”
In his three years as head of DFCS, Cagle has been credited with increased stability, reduced turnover, reduced caseloads and clearing a huge backlog of child abuse and neglect investigations. He also oversaw increases in staffing and a 19 percent pay increase for case workers on the front lines. While numbers are important (one caseworker with 19 cases said her total before Cagle had been 80), experience in this kind of wrenching work is at a premium, and incentives to hire and retain the best people are crucial.
Unfortunately for Georgia, the very qualities that have made Cagle effective here are taking him to a bigger job, and leaving the division searching for a new director once more. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to hire Cagle to head the largest child welfare system in the country.
He’s certainly leaving Georgia’s system in better shape than he found it. As the AJC reports, Cagle will not “be leaving under a familiar sad scenario: A new leader takes command, boldly heralding reforms, then is unceremoniously ousted after a child dies while under the agency’s watch … Cagle appears to be leaving after a good run, having added caseworkers, reduced employee turnover and increased the number of adoptions.”
Among the most valuable qualities that make Cagle effective in this role is the fact that he is far more than just a bureaucrat managing files and numbers from on high; he is a former caseworker himself, and a foster child as well. As he recounted in an interview with staff writer Alva James-Johnson, he was given up for adoption at birth and spent the first 10 months of his life in an orphanage before being adopted by a family in North Carolina: “That was, I think, a foundation that they gave me that allowed me to do the kind of work that I’m doing today. And had they not done that, I think my life would be much different.”
He has spent much of his tenure as director out of the office, traveling the state meeting with local DFCS caseworkers, foster parents and other stakeholders in the child welfare system.
“A caseworker can make or break a relationship with a family in the first contact,” Cagle said. “Some people tend to think of us as just ‘baby snatchers,’ but what we are working to do with children is keep them at home – but do it safely.”
Atlanta television station WXIA reported that DFCS does not have a schedule for naming Cagle’s successor, but he or she will have a daunting challenge. There is still, the AJC reports, a high turnover rate (though reduced from 35 to 31 percent during Cagle’s tenure), the growing problem of opioid-addicted parents and a perpetual shortage of foster families even as the number of children needing homes increases.
Bobby Cagle will face all those problems, on a far greater scale, in California. He deserves Georgia’s best wishes, and its thanks.